Saturday, 28 January 2012

Google and Gzowski

I can remember when Peter Gzowski first started using the internet a few years before he died. He was like a kid in a candy store. The idea that he could sit in a comfortable chair with a cigarette and coffee and have access to so much information was astounding to the journalist in him. I don't know what he'd think about what's going on now.

Gzowski was a rather grumpy man in person, but magic on the radio. He was one of the best interviewers I've ever heard.  He was curious and knowledgeable about a lot of stuff, but I think he did two things that interviewers now could learn from.  He didn't want a list of questions from his producers but instead would continually ask "Why are we talking to this person?" It was only when he was satisfied with the answer that he felt ready. And the second flowed from that, he would listen, listen, listen. Nothing is more important to doing a good interview.

I've no doubt if he were still with us, he'd be doing interviews on how naive we've been  looking at the internet as a treasure drove of objective information. He'd recognize that the desire to make money would eventually throw us out of  the information "Garden of Eden".   (I'd bring the "apple of knowledge" into this, but I'm in enough allegorical trouble already).

This week the web's potential for good and evil was brought into sharp focus. In the U.S., lawmakers withdrew two controversial laws designed to update copywrite protections for the producers of creative material. Late this week issues around privacy, and the ability of google to collect huge amounts of information about our web preferences, dominated the news. Four interesting articles (imo)  to share that touch on all of these issues. (you won't see Terence Corcoran featured here very often, but in the spirit of reading outside of your comfort zone, and confusing Google, here's one). This first one I think is particularly important.

How Google is Making the Climate War Worse

I am a huge fan of Google. And the company has done far more than any other company to help solve the problems of climate change by investing in game-changing renewable innovation, and even providing an education on climate change, directly. However, it’s core mission – finding stuff for you – is turning out to hamper progress in a weird way.
Google tries very hard to please you by finding you more stuff just like the other stuff you clicked on last time. That is the essence of google’s great cleverness. But that very brilliance is becoming more and more damaging to the shared view out to an objective fact-based world.
Who hasn’t gotten exasperated with someone else’s ignorance about climate change? Haven’t you finally said: “look, you can just google it!”
But there turns out to be one big problem with just “googling” it. It depends on who you are.
So if last time you looked up climate change and chose to open something by, say, Marc Morano, then Senator Inhofe, and then the Drudge Report, which would all poo-poo climate change, google thinks, “oh, this moron likes denier news about climate change,” and next time, more of its top suggestions for your search will be skewed even further to the right.
As you keep heading further into la-la land, Google is there, holding your hand, assuring you that indeed, this is the objective, google-able truth. Two people with different search histories get two entirely different sets of google “facts” for the identical search terms.
The problem is that science-based types, who click on the fact-laden science-based pdfs from the EPA and reports from the WRI and studies from NOAA – and then get more of these kinds of results; assume that’s what everyone sees when they just “google” it, but there is no one objective science-based google.
Google has become like a good but unobtrusive butler, that always obsequiously aims to please, by always giving you more and more of what you liked last time. Ultimately, as a result, we are now all living in what we believe to be the objective, self-evidently google-able truth. And we are not.
Climate scientists keep turning out more and better climate science, and scratch their heads at the apparent lack of effect on “rational” hearts and minds, but it is simply not being found by the other side, because googling it turns up the opposition. While scientists wring their hands over the problem that they are not communicating well enough, there is nothing they can do differently.
Together with the outright (deliberate) propaganda by the 1% against the 99%, Google’s (accidental) amplification of that propaganda, a mere accident of our technological history, is fueling part of the rage of this internet age. The civil war on science it amplifies – even by accident –  is a danger to our survival, as it saps our commitment to change before it’s too late.

The Internet’s collectivist blarney
Jan. 27, 2012

Terence Corcoran  Jan 27, 2012

The copyright war is a corporate battle, not a fight for freedom

The collapse of two U.S. online anti-piracy bills continues to generate triumphalism within the Internet Liberation Party. It is now entrenched mythology that the voice of the people, expressed through the Internet, last week gunned down million-dollar Hollywood lobby campaigns and saved the Internet for freedom, democracy and the right to endless zero-cost downloads of Avatar and The Dark Knight.

The story line goes like this: All the “old media” spending by industry in support of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) proved useless in the face of the new era. “A new and profoundly different political force has emerged in the last few months, a constituency that identifies itself not by local interests but as citizens of the Internet,” wrote Larry Downes in Forbes.

Scores of similar comments are all over cyberspace. The SOPA-killers are millions of Americans caught up in a “newfound civic energy,” said Lorelie Kelly, director the New Strategic Security Inititive, writing in Huffington Post Friday. The ability to shape legislation through the push of a button on their computer represents “rewiring the Town Square to enable continual, sustained participation in our own self-governance.”

Before this revolutionary fervour goes too far — and the Internet is nothing if not a institution that wants to go too far —there are a couple of problems, practical and ideological, with the mythology. First, despite the claims to novelty and precedent, the anti-SOPA activists proved nothing more than that it is still possible to mobilize a mob with collectivist blarney. A second related issue is the degree to which the mobilization of the mob was carefully orchestrated by a cabal of tech corporations led by Google with a vested interest in keeping the Internet free of the constraints of copyright for their own benefit and at the expense of trade, commerce, creativity and the rights of others.

All of this and more can be found in a new book by Robert Levine, provocatively titled Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back. (See excerpt here.) Free Ride should be must reading for all creators of cultural property, including newspaper owners, and for all the scoffers who write letters to the editor ridiculing the idea that we are in the midst of a total war on copyright. It’s the Occupy movement plundering the Internet.

War brings destruction, which is what Mr. Levine — a former executive editor of Billboard magazine — documents in his book. From filmmakers to the music industry to journalism providers and beyond, the official and unofficial  rejection of copyright as a legitimate claim to ownership threatens to turn markets and commerce, the backbone of cultural economic activity, into chaos.

As Mr. Levine outlines in detail in Free Ride, the ideological cover for the anti-copyright movement is created and funded by the tech industries with household names that are at the heart of the Internet, especially Google.

Google’s backing can be found behind a host of celebrity Net activists and high-sounding institutions. In a chapter titled “Geeks Bearing Gifts: Google’s War on Copyright,” Mr. Levine follows the money and Google to Lawrence Lessig’s Creative Commons and scores of foundations and think-tanks, not to mention the candidacy of Barack Obama’s 2008 run for the presidency.

Throughout Free Ride, Mr. Levine homes in on what he refers to as “Silicon Valley libertarianism that rejects any form of Internet regulation — except, in most cases, when it happens to help the technology business itself.” But the net-neutrality libertarianism here is not the brand that puts much stock in markets and individual rights. “In the world of net neutrality, everyone works for the benefit of all, and individual rights mostly just get in the way. This fits with the trend toward deconstruction, which has made academics ever more skeptical of the Romantic ideal of individual genius. All artists build on the work of others, just as programmers combine existing bits of code.”

Put another way, the overriding idea behind the open Internet is that “if we all create culture, why should any one person own it?” Mr. Mr. Levine is no corporate shill. In an interview, he described himself as a “centrist Democrat” who is “actually pretty progressive.” In fact, he sees copyright “as a progressive notion.” So when venture-capital firms and high-tech giants line up against copyright, he sees a corporate assault on a progressive structure that protects the rights of creators and enhances the operation of a market for culture products.

For the moment, the anti-copyright ideologues have the mob in their pockets. Mr. Levine says one way to change the debate is to reframe the issue. This is not Hollywood culture industries against the public interest, nor is it the tech industries against the public good. “This is the entertainment business versus the technology business,” both of which are in the business of maximizing value for their shareholders. “When people look at Google they see a benevolent force and when they look at Universal they see a malevolent force.”  To change the public debate, said Mr. Levine, we need to see that reality. “That’s why I wrote Free Ride.”

The End of Privacy
by Kevin Drum

A few days ago Google announced a new privacy policy: If you're signed into any Google service, the information that Google collects from you can be combined with information from every other Google service to build a gigantic profile of your activities and preferences. On Tuesday I wrote that I was pretty unhappy about this, and a lot of people wanted to know why. After all, Google says this new policy will mean a better computing experience for everyone:

    Our recently launched personal search feature is a good example of the cool things Google can do when we combine information across products. Our search box now gives you great answers not just from the web, but your personal stuff too…But there's so much more that Google can do to help you by sharing more of your information with…well, you. We can make search better—figuring out what you really mean when you type in Apple, Jaguar or Pink. We can provide more relevant ads too. For example, it's January, but maybe you're not a gym person, so fitness ads aren't that useful to you. We can provide reminders that you're going to be late for a meeting based on your location, your calendar and an understanding of what the traffic is like that day.

So what's my problem? Easy. In that mass of good news, the real reason for Google's announcement was stuffed quietly into the middle: "We can provide more relevant ads too."

This is so obvious that no one even paid attention to it. Of course Google wants to target its ads better. That's where most of its revenue comes from. Yawn.

So again: What's my problem? Why do I care if Google serves up ads that are a little more suited to my tastes? The truth is that I don't. What I do care about, though, is the obvious corollary: Google's main purpose in life, as you'd expect from any big, public company, is making money. And the way they make money is by helping third parties sell you stuff. Here, then, is the nut of the thing, from the same blog post announcing the new privacy policy:

    Finally, what we're not changing. We remain committed to data liberation, so if you want to take your information elsewhere you can. We don't sell your personal information, nor do we share it externally without your permission…

Do you find that reassuring? I decidedly don't. If Google can change its privacy policy today, it can change it tomorrow. And it will. No company is an unstoppable juggernaut forever, and Google is already showing signs of becoming an ordinary corporation that has to scrap for profits just like everyone else. This is what's motivating their policy change this week, and someday it's likely to motivate them to sell my personal information after all.

It won't be mandatory, of course. If I want to close my Google accounts, they'll let me. But if I use an Android smartphone—and this is plainly one of the primary targets of Google's new policy—that will be pretty hard. And after years of using Google products like Gmail and YouTube, it's not as easy as it sounds to simply export all your data and move to a new platform. In reality, very few people will do this. Google is counting on the fact that they'll grumble a bit, like I'm doing, and then get on with their lives.

And maybe I should too. That's certainly the primary advice I got after writing Tuesday's post. Perhaps, as David Brin has been telling us for years, traditional notions of privacy are going away whether we like it or not, so we might as well like it. Complaining about it won't do us any more good than complaining about the end of transatlantic ocean liners or old-time radio shows.

And yet…I'm just not there yet. It's bad enough that Google can build up a massive and—if we're honest, slightly scary—profile of my activities, but it will be a lot worse when Google and Facebook and Procter & Gamble all get together to merge these profiles into a single uber-database and then sell it off for a fee to anyone with a product to hawk. Or any government agency that thinks this kind of information might be pretty handy.

So that's why I'm unhappy. I don't believe for a second that Google's policy against selling personal information will last forever. Maybe I should just relax and accept that this is the direction the world is going, but for now I think I'll continue to fight it.

David Pogue
Put Down the Pitchforks on SOPA

By now, you’ve probably heard of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect I.P. Act (PIPA). These are anti-piracy bills that had been making their way through the House and Senate, respectively. (and have now been withdrawn-I.P.)

You might have been made aware of these proposed bills Wednesday, when Wikipedia and other Web sites “went dark” in protest. (Google covered up its logo with a big black rectangle, as though censored.)

I’ve been watching these doings with fascination. One reason: it’s the first time so many big Web sites have banded together for a political action.

But I’ve also been a little alarmed. Of the millions joining in outraged protests, I’ll bet that only a few have actually read the proposed bills. Everyone else is, no doubt, swept away by the Web sites’ shock language. These bills, say the opponents, will allow Hollywood to censor free speech, kill innovation, and “fatally damage the free and open Internet,” as Wikipedia put it. Light the torches! Grab the pitchforks!

In a perverse stroke of curiosity, I thought maybe I’d actually study these bills.

Nobody’s disputing that these bills have been put together by the entertainment industries — movies, TV, music. The bills are intended to address their chronic frustration: that most of the piracy sites, which make movies, TV, music and book files available free, are overseas. Even though they get more visits than Google or Wikipedia, American laws can’t touch them.

The SOPA and PIPA bills would try to shut down these overseas piracy sites by exerting leverage on companies here in the United States, where they do have jurisdiction.

For example, they’d force American service providers to block the domain names (for example, “”) of overseas piracy sites. They’d allow the government to sue American sites like Google and Facebook, and even blogs, to remove links to the piracy sites. And they’d give the government the right to cut off the piracy sites’ funding; they could force forcing American payment companies (like PayPal) and advertisers to cut off the foreign accounts.

The outrage reminds me of the controversy over global warming. Yes, there are climate-change deniers. But nobody seems to notice that they’re in two totally different camps, making totally different arguments. Some people deny that there’s been any climate change at all. Others acknowledge the climate change, but deny that people have anything to do with it. These two categories of people actually aren’t on the same side at all.

In SOPA’s case, too, there are two groups. Some people are O.K. with the goals of the bills, acknowledging that software piracy is out of control; they object only to the bills’ approaches. If the entertainment industry’s legal arm gets out of control, they say, they could deem almost anything to be a piracy site. YouTube could be one, because lots of videos include bits of TV shows and copyrighted music. Facebook could be one, because people often link to copyrighted videos and songs. Google and Bing would be responsible for removing every link to a questionable Web site. Just a gigantic headache.

But there’s another group of people with a different agenda: They don’t even agree with the bills’ purpose. They don’t want their free movies taken away. A good number of them believe that free music and movies are their natural-born rights. They don’t want the big evil government taking away their free fun.

For the record, I think the movie companies have approached the digital age with almost slack-jawed idiocy. The rules for watching online movies from authorized sites are absurd (24 hours to finish the movie? Have they never heard of bedtime?). And there are plenty of movies, even big ones, that you can’t rent or stream online at all. (The original “Star Wars” trilogy, the first three “Indiana Jones” movies, and hundreds of others.)

It should occur to these movie studios that if you don’t give people a legal way to buy what they want, they’ll find another way to get it.

At the same time, what the piracy sites are doing doesn’t seem quite fair, either. Yes, it’s a quirk of the Internet that you can duplicate something infinitely and distribute it at no cost. But that doesn’t make it O.K. to shoplift, especially when the stolen goods are for sale at a reasonable price from legitimate sources. Yes, even if the company you’re robbing is huge, profitable and led by idiots.

In this case, the solution is to work on the language of the bills to rule out the sorts of abuses that the big Web sites fear. (And to fix the other minor point, which is that the bills won’t work. For example, they’d make American Internet companies block your access to domain names like “,” but you’d still be able to get to them by typing their underlying numerical Internet addresses, like In other words, anybody with any modicum of technical skills would easily sidestep the barriers.)

As it turns out, that’s exactly what’s happening. Dozens of members of Congress, and the White House itself, have dropped support of the bills; their sponsors are considering big changes to the proposals. (They might look, for starters, at the suggestions in Wednesday’s Times editorial: “The legislation could be further amended to narrow the definition of criminality and clarify that it is only aimed at foreign sites. And it could tighten guarantees of due process. Private parties must first get a court order to block business with a Web site they deem infringing on their copyrights.”)

In other words, the protests were effective. There’s no chance that the bills will become law in their current forms.

But it was a sloppy success; the scare language used by some of the Web sites was just as flawed as the Congressional language that they opposed. (I actually have sympathy — just a tiny bit — for the music business’s frustration. It was put nicely by Cary Sherman, chief executive of the Recording Industry Association of America: “It’s very difficult to counter the misinformation when the disseminators also own the platform.”)

Finally, not enough people have acknowledged that the opposition was arguing two totally different different points — the “you’re going about it the wrong way” group and the “we want our illegal movies!” group.

In the new world of Internet versus government, the system worked; the people spoke, government listened, and that’s good. But let’s do it responsibly, people. Both sides have an obligation to do the right thing.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Mashed Potatoes

This will read as criticism, but it really isn't.  I have many scars from thirty years of covering primary industries like farming and fishing FOR a general audience.  The mix of competing interests and messages, trying to determine what a story is and how to make it compelling, all conspire at times to hide what's really going on.

I was always guilty (and continue to be ) of paying too much attention to the interests of primary producers. My reasoning is that they matter in a province like PEI, and that virtually everywhere else in the media, from advertising to current affairs shows, and certainly the news,  urban consumers are the audience everyone is broadcasting too. Think of CBC buying the digital network Country Canada, and then turning it into Bold, an arts and culture channel. Think of how Radio Noons across the country have disappeared replaced with phone-in shows. Given the demographic changes in Canada, these are smart programming decisions. I stubbornly tried to fight the tide, and usually lost. No right or wrong here, just differences of opinion.

So think back to this weeks story about potato supplies on PEI.  "PEI Facing Potato Shortage" was the headline that ended up in newspapers,  radio and television newscasts across the country.  The first sentence in most of the print stories anyway was "Although store shelves are still full..... "    So let's look at what's really going on here:
1. The potato harvest is smaller than a year ago when there was a bumper crop, and, fortunately, huge export sales to Russia which suffered a drought.
2. Potatoes are being shipped more quickly than last year.
3. Potato supplies are low in many other areas.
4. Prices  are certainly profitable to farmers right now, but not gold-plated.

The information came out of an industry gathering near Charlottetown hosted by the United Potato Growers of Canada, and included industry and marketing experts from across North America.

Here's where messaging, and who that message is intended for, makes the story a little more complicated. The job of United Potato Growers is to make sure that farmers are getting the best possible price. It sounds simple and straightforward, but it's not.  By law United can't set the price , it can only provide information, and try to persuade the players in the marketing chain that prices should be higher, and that's a tough job. There are many, many sellers on PEI and elsewhere, and very few buyers. A handful of wholesalers and retailers dominate the food business (think Loblaws amd Sobeys)  and they have access to produce from virtually everywhere. They see their job as putting good quality produce on the shelves at the cheapest price. This works well for consumers, not so much for producers, but that's my my bias showing again.

What's really at play is a kind of psychological warfare:  once one of the hundreds of potato sellers agrees to a price, then everyone else is expected to match it, and it's hard to say no to sale. Producers constantly live with the anxirety that they won't sell their potatoes and will end up feeding them to cattle in the Spring. And it's THESE producer/dealers that the United officials were really trying to talk to this past week: "There's no over supply, don't worry about moving your crop,and make sure you're getting as much money as possible" Industry watchers know this kind of market situation doesn't come along very often, and farmers can't squander it.

So it was really more of a pep talk to farmers, than a warning to consumers.  Sobeys has just run a sale on potatoes and it was able to strong arm enough farmers to agree to take a lower price DESPITE the market conditions.  That's what United is trying to stop.

The irony in all of this of course is that most consumers would hardly notice the difference paying one or two dollars more for a bag of potatoes, but it's a world of difference at the farm gate. The big food retailers have become used to setting prices based on their needs (marketing flyers to get people into the stores), and they have enough economic power to get their way most of the time.  United is saying this is a moment when farmers can and should ask for more.

So if you're a consumer, don't worry there will always be potatoes on the shelves at reasonable prices. New potatoes from Florida will be coming soon (that will cost you I agree).  To my friends in the media whatever story I would have done on this would have probably missed the point too: "PEI Facing Potato Shortage"  is just too good a headline to pass up, and my explanation wouldn't have been as much fun. I'd probably have concluded that everyone who wants to buy potatoes is getting them, farmers are making some money,  so really there's just the right amount.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Changing the Rules

Doing some paid work (9-5) so haven't tended the blog as much as I should.

Through last week we saw/read a lot about hearings on the Northern Gateway Pipeline. The National Energy Board will spend months considering the merits of a costly venture to use a a pipeline to bring Alberta oilsand's bitumen to a new marine terminal in Kitimat B.C., and then onto tankers for shipment to Asia. Opponents say the pipeline and tankers go through some of the most pristine and precious natural areas left in Canada, and the risk of a catastrophic spill is just too great. Proponents naturally talk about the jobs and economic opportunities, along with the importance of finding new markets for oilsand's crude.

I was also pursuing another set of hearings with its own environmental risks, the spill of heavy water at the Point Lepreau nuclear facility, and the discovery during hearings by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission that "old, heavily tritiated" heavy water is being reused at the plant. Gordon Edwards of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility says this is just a cost cutting measure by N.B. Power and unnecessarily puts plant workers, and even the public at risk.(see the last two posts)

It took Paul Wells of Macleans to pull these two stories together.  It turns out that slowly over the last few years the Conservative Government has been shifting responsibility for environmental assessment away from the government agency set up to do this ( the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency) to groups many think are just too close to industry. Here's Well's take:

Joe Oliver vs. the radicals, or among them
by Paul Wells

The Natural Resources Department was always where you worked if you thought environmentalists were a bunch of kooks. In the late 1990s, when the world was young and Kyoto was fresh and new, Natural Resources used to leak like a firehose right into the notebook of a colleague of mine at the National Post. Herb Dhaliwal, then the minister in charge, made a great show of driving an SUV the size of a hockey rink.

But the leaks were always anonymous and Herb’s SUV was a bit of an inside joke. Times change, and now we have Joe Oliver, who’s written (well, whose signature appears under) an open letter as significant in the annals of Conservative government as the ones St├ęphane Dion used to write for Jean Chr├ętien.

There’s nothing subtle about it.

There are two main points to Oliver’s letter. First, the diversifying-energy-export notion the Prime Minister was so big on in his year-end interviews.

    Canada is on the edge of an historic choice: to diversify our energy markets away from our traditional trading partner in the United States or to continue with the status quo.

    Virtually all our energy exports go to the US. As a country, we must seek new markets for our products and services and the booming Asia-Pacific economies have shown great interest in our oil, gas, metals and minerals. For our government, the choice is clear: we need to diversify our markets in order to create jobs and economic growth for Canadians across this country. We must expand our trade with the fast growing Asian economies.

Remember that battle in the early years of this government over whether China should be embraced or shunned? Roughly, the fight between David Emerson and Jason Kenney? Over. Done. Kenney, who is not used to losing in today’s Ottawa, lost big.

But there’s more (in the letter):

    Unfortunately, there are environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade. Their goal is to stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth. No forestry. No mining. No oil. No gas. No more hydro-electric dams.

    These groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda. They seek to exploit any loophole they can find, stacking public hearings with bodies to ensure that delays kill good projects. They use funding from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada’s national economic interest. They attract jet-setting celebrities with some of the largest personal carbon footprints in the world to lecture Canadians not to develop our natural resources.

    Finally, if all other avenues have failed, they will take a quintessential American approach: sue everyone and anyone to delay the project even further. They do this because they know it can work. It works because it helps them to achieve their ultimate objective: delay a project to the point it becomes economically unviable.

This is just a hunch, but I suspect the next massive round of Conservative Party advertising won’t be aimed against an opposition party. This is the sound the Harper machine makes when it’s gearing up for a big fight.

This has been coming for a while. The 2010 Throne Speech promised to “untangle the daunting maze of regulations that needlessly complicates project approvals.” That year’s budget said: “Responsibility for conducting environmental assessments for energy projects will be delegated from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency to the National Energy Board and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission for projects falling under their respective areas of expertise.” The oil industry couldn’t have been happier. But until now there’s been no follow-up.

Note the change in tone employed, one measure of the distance between a minority and a majority government. In 2010, the Harper government was laying down markers deliberately, but not rushing, not kicking up a fuss. That’s changed.

Elizabeth May, the Green Party leader, really didn’t like Oliver’s letter. Oliver almost immediately moderated his tone in spoken remarks. No matter. This letter, certainly vetted by the PMO if it didn’t originate there, is the script for what comes next. It ends: “It is an urgent matter of Canada’s national interest.”

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

More on Used Heavy Water and Tritium

Here's a link to an interview with Gordon Edwards who heads up the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility. He says measuring heavy water leaks in litres is silly, it's the amount of radioactive tritium in the water that really matters. And he has important information on why NOT replacing the heavy water at the point lepreau station (see last two posts) puts plant workers at least, if not the public, at risk.

Here's the interview:

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Conflicted Over Nukes

From the '60's through to the '90's it was almost a no-brainer to be opposed to nuclear energy. The real and cultural fallout from Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, the movie The China Syndrome, all cemented the idea that this was bad stuff. Climate change has forced many to re-think. Smart (IMO) commentators who care about the environment  like Stewart Brand and  the U.K. Guardian's George Monbiot have written persuasively that we may not like nuclear energy, but when the alternative is burning coal, and all of the C02 belching that goes with it,  the nuclear option is far superior. Even the Fukushima disaster last Spring in Japan hasn't shaken Monbiot's resolve.


"In last week’s New Scientist, David Strahan points out that Germany’s decision to shut its nuclear plants will, despite its massive investment in new renewables, create an extra 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide between now and 2020. That will cancel out almost all the savings (335Mt) brought about in the entire European Union by the new Energy Efficiency Directive.

In June, Angela Merkel announced that she would bridge the generation gap caused by shutting down nuclear plants by doubling the volume of coal-fired power stations Germany will build over the next ten years. Outrageously, her government will help pay for them with a fund originally intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This shows what a fix you can get yourself into when getting rid of nuclear power takes precedence over dealing with climate change."

There are pocketbook  issues as well for homeowners and businesses in the Maritimes.  Other than some small amounts of  hydro generation in New Brunswick when rivers are running high (usually just in the Spring, but this past year generation has carried on through most of the year),  power from the Point Lepreau nuclear generating station in New Brunswick is by far the cheapest available. Lepreau of course is three years and counting late in a major refurbishment, and more than a billion dollars over budget.   On top of that here on  PEI it's costing Maritime Electric ratepayers almost 2 million dollars  a month to replace the electricity it used to get from Lepreau.   Government officials hope the Federal government will agree to cover these added costs, but that seems increasingly unlikely now that it's found a private sector buyer (Quebec's SNC Lavelin)  for AECL, the former crown corporation in charge of designing and building nuclear plants. If and when Island ratepayers start to payoff  this growing liability (about $65 Million right now) , they will be in for a nasty surprise. See more here:

Whatever we think of nuclear, given the time and money already invested in refurbishing Point Lepreau, it will likely be up and running in the next year, and a week ago I would have said that's a good thing.  I still think it's a better alternative than burning coal, but a couple of sources of information dug up by Kip Smith, a man with an inquiring, and tenacious mind when it comes to things environmental and corporate, has got me thinking again.

One was a hearing on that small spill of radioactive heavy water at Point Lepreau during December.   The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission  is the federal agency that oversees  the country's reactors and it held a hearing into the spill in mid December. There was more information on the spill  just today (Sunday, Jan 8,2012):

Damaged pump diaphragm caused heavy water spill at N.B.'s Point Lepreau nuclear plant

The Canadian Press
Officials at New Brunswick Power have pegged a damaged pump diaphragm as the culprit of a recent radioactive heavy water spill at the Point Lepreau nuclear power plant.
Staff were evacuated from the plant in mid-December after four to six litres of the heavy water spilled from a monitoring equipment.

Officials say the moderator system at the plant, located in Lepreau near Saint John, will be reloaded with heavy water over the next few days.
The heavy-water system was being refilled at the time of the spill as part of the utility’s plan to restart the generating station after it was refurbished.
The plant’s restoration is three years behind schedule and $1-billion over the original $1.4-billion budget.
NB Power says there were no health concerns for workers or the public and officials will continue to investigate the incident."

This is how we'd like to think of this story: a faulty piece of equipment, no human error, no harm done. Listening to the hearing itself (which does require some patience) there were a couple of  unsettling disclosures. One was that the plant is re-using  heavy water, which caught the chair of the commission Michael Binder unawares:

From the hearing:

"Sorry, just to piggyback,
let me understand, are they not going to use fresh heavy
water, are they using old heavy water? I mean, I thought
this whole plant is being refurbished. Why do they still
have old heavy water?
DR. RZENTKOWSKI: Yes, they are using the
old heavy water which was stored before the refurbishment
started. There is no tritium removal facility at the
Point 1 Lepreau site.
 THE CHAIRMAN: So they’re using old heavy
 water; is that ---
 DR. RZENTKOWSKI: That’s correct. Because
 in the overall risk assessment, which was conducted by
 Point Lepreau before this decision has been made, it was
 concluded that it’s safer to reuse the old heavy water
 instead of transporting the heavy water, most likely to
 Ontario, for tritium removal and then transporting this
 back. So the risk associated with radiation exposure
 would be definitely higher.
 THE CHAIRMAN: Is it safer or cheaper?
 DR. RZENTKOWSKI: That’s an interesting
 question, but I can only confirm that the risk assessment
 has been done.
 THE CHAIRMAN: NB Power, do you want to
 MR. THOMPSON: For the record, Paul
 Thompson, Nuclear Safety and Reg Affairs Manager.
 We looked into the aspects of the best way
 to go. We did -- looked at all the various options; have
 concluded that the risks were very manageable. We’ve
 performed a formal benefit cost approach on this and
 demonstrated that we can manage the additional challenges
that are posed by reusing the water.

And there are other challenges in shipping
 that amount of water offsite, so it was a matter of
 balancing the various challenges that we have. We
 concluded that it is manageable and we’ve got the
 appropriate procedures in place, as is demonstrated by
 this particular event.
 THE CHAIRMAN: Okay. Thank you."

And Chair Binder was also concerned that there WAS a leak at all (a small one thankfully) even though all of the equipment was supposed to have been thoroughly tested:

"Just an observation. Since
 this plant is almost finished refurbishing, it's a bit
 unsettling to hear about hydrazine and heavy water leak
 one after another.
 So that's the discomfort level that we all
 feel about this and hopefully the root cause will deal
 with some of those issues.
 DR. RZENTKOWSKI: I would only like to
 mention, I am not going to defend New Brunswick Power by
 any means, that those activities are non-routine
 activities conducted during the return to service.
 So some mistakes may happen, and I was glad
 to see that they responded properly and they minimized any
 consequences on workers and the environment.
 THE CHAIRMAN: NB Power, last word?
 MR. KENNEDY: Yes, Mr. Chair. For the
 record, it's Blair Kennedy.
 Just to emphasize that NB Power, Point
 Lepreau generating station, take these events very
 seriously and we will be looking into these issues and we
 have -- we consider these to be low-level events from a
 point of view at the Point Lepreau generating station.
 But you can rest assured that safety and
quality  is foremost in our mind at Point Lepreau
 generating station.
 THE CHAIRMAN: Okay. Thank you. Thank you
 very much."

Here's the thing about nuclear energy: as taxpayers and citizens we put a lot of money and faith in the technology and competency of the people in charge of these reactors. I wanted a little more than boilerplate assurances from the NB Power operators, and I still don't know from the hearing whether old heavy water is being used for cost or safety reasons. (I'll keep trying to find out).

All of this was bad enough until I saw another unsettling article today (Sunday January 8, 2012) that questions many of the risk assumptions the nuclear industry and the media have been operating on for decades. Some of this is heavy going, but the conclusions are very troubling.

Science with a Skew: The Nuclear Power Industry After Chernobyl and Fukushima

by: Gayle Greene, The Asia-Pacific Journal | News Analysis

It is one of the marvels of our time that the nuclear industry managed to resurrect itself from its ruins at the end of the last century, when it crumbled under its costs, inefficiencies, and mega-accidents. Chernobyl released hundreds of times the radioactivity of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs combined, contaminating more than 40% of Europe and the entire Northern Hemisphere.  But along came the nuclear lobby to breathe new life into the industry, passing off as “clean” this energy source that polluted half the globe.  The “fresh look at nuclear”—in the words of a New York Times makeover piece (May 13, 2006)—paved the way to a “nuclear Renaissance” in the United States that Fukushima has by no means brought to a halt.
That mainstream media have been powerful advocates for nuclear power comes as no surprise.  “The media are saturated with a skilled, intensive, and effective advocacy campaign by the nuclear industry, resulting in disinformation” and “wholly counterfactual accounts…widely believed by otherwise sensible people,” states the 2010-2011 World Nuclear Industry Status Report by Worldwatch Institute.  What is less well understood is the nature of the “evidence” that gives the nuclear industry its mandate, Cold War science which, with its reassurances about low-dose radiation risk, is being used to quiet alarms about Fukushima and to stonewall new evidence that would call a halt to the industry.
Consider these damage control pieces from major media:
 ~~ The “miniscule quantities” of radiation in the radioactive plume spreading across the U.S. pose “no health hazard,” assures the Department of Energy (William Broad, “Radiation over U.S. is Harmless, Officials Say,” NYT, March 22, 2011).
~~ “The risk of cancer is quite low, lower than what the public might expect,” explains Evan Douple, head of the Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF), which has studied the A-bomb survivors and found that “at very low doses, the risk was also very low” (Denise Grady, “Radiation is everywhere, but how to rate harm?” NYT, April 5, 2011).
~~ An NPR story a few days after the Daiichi reactors destabilized quotes this same Evan Douple saying that radiation levels around the plant “should be reassuring.  At these levels so far I don’t think a study would be able to measure that there would be any health effects, even in the future.” (“Early radiation data from near plant ease health fears,” Richard Knox and Andrew Prince,” March 18, 2011)  The NPR story, like Grady’s piece (above), stresses that the Radiation Effects Research Foundation has had six decades experience studying the health effects of radiation, so it ought to know.
~~ British journalist George Monbiot, environmentalist turned nuclear advocate, in a much publicized debate with Helen Caldicott on television and in the Guardian, refers to the RERF data as “scientific consensus,” citing, again, their   reassurances that low dose radiation incurs low cancer risk.  Everyone knows that radiation at high dose is harmful, but the Hiroshima studies reassure that risk diminishes as dose diminishes until it becomes negligible.  This is a necessary belief if the nuclear industry is to exist, because reactors release radioactive emissions not only in accidents, but in their routine, day-to-day operations and in the waste they produce.  If low-dose radiation is not negligible, workers in the industry are at risk, as are people who live in the vicinity of reactors or accidents—as is all life on this planet .  The waste produced by reactors does not “dilute and disperse” and disappear, as industry advocates would have us believe, but is blown by the winds, carried by the tides, seeps into earth and groundwater, and makes its way into the food chain and into us, adding to the sum total of cancers and birth defects throughout the world.  Its legacy is for longer than civilization has existed; plutonium, with its half life of 24,000 years, is, in human terms, forever.
What is this Radiation Effects Research Foundation, and on what “science” does it base its reassuring claims?
The Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC), as it was originally called, began its studies of the survivors five years after the bombings.    (It was renamed the Radiation Effects Research Foundation in the mid seventies, to get the “atomic bomb” out, at around the same time the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was renamed the Department of Energy (DOE).  Japan, which has the distinction of being twice nuked, first as our wartime enemy then in 2011 as our ally and the recipient of our GE reactors, has also been the population most closely studied for radiation-related effects, for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings created a large, ready-made population of radiation-exposed humans. “Ah, but the Americans—they are wonderful,” exclaimed Japan’s radiation expert Tsuzuki Masao, who lamented that he’d had only rabbits to work on:  “It has remained for them to conduct the human experiment!”
The ABCC studied but did not treat radiation effects, and many survivors
were reluctant to identify themselves as survivors, having no wish to bare their health problems to US investigators and become mired in bureaucracy and social stigma.  But sufficient numbers did voluntarily come forth to make this the largest—and longest—study of radiation-related health effects ever.  No medical study has had such resources lavished on it, teams of scientists, state of the art equipment: this was Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) funding.  Since it is assumed in epidemiology that the larger the sample, the greater the statistical accuracy, there has been a tendency to accept these data as the gold standard of radiation risk.
The Japanese physicians and scientists who’d been on the scene told horrific stories of people who’d seemed unharmed, but then began bleeding from ears, nose, and throat, hair falling out by the handful, bluish spots appearing on the skin, muscles contracting, leaving limbs and hands deformed.   When they tried to publish their observations, they were ordered to hand over their reports to   US authorities. Throughout the occupation years (1945-52) Japanese medical journals were heavily censored on nuclear matters.  In late 1945, US Army surgeons issued a statement that all people expected to die from the radiation effects of the bomb had already died and no further physiological effects due to radiation were expected.   When Tokyo radio announced that even people who entered the cities after the bombings were dying of mysterious causes and decried the weapons as “illegal” and “inhumane,” American officials dismissed these allegations as Japanese propaganda. 
The issue of radiation poisoning was particularly sensitive, since it carried a taint of banned weaponry, like poison gas.  The A-bomb was not “an inhumane weapon,” declared General Leslie Groves, who had headed the Manhattan project.  The first western scientists allowed in to the devastated cities were under military escort, ordered in by Groves.  The first western journalists allowed in were similarly under military escort.   Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett, who managed to get in to Hiroshima on his own, got a story out to a British paper, describing people who were dying “mysteriously and horribly” from “an unknown something which I can only describe as the atomic plague… dying at the rate of 100 a day,” General MacArthur ordered him out of Japan; his camera, with film shot in Hiroshima, mysteriously disappeared.
“No Radioactivity in Hiroshima Ruin,” proclaimed a New York Times headline, Sept 13, 1945.  “Survey Rules out Nagasaki Dangers,” stated another headline:  “Radioactivity after atomic bomb is only 1000th of that from luminous dial watch,” Oct 7, 1945.   There were powerful political incentives to downplay radiation risk.  As State Department Attorney William H. Taft asserted, the “mistaken impression” that low-level radiation is hazardous has the “potential to be seriously damaging to every aspect of the Department of Defense’s nuclear weapons and nuclear propulsion programs…it could impact the civilian nuclear industry… and it could raise questions regarding the use of radioactive substances in medical diagnosis and treatment.”   A pamphlet issued by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1953 “insisted that low-level exposure to radiation ‘can be continued indefinitely without any detectable bodily change.’”  The AEC was paying the salaries of the ABCC scientists and monitoring them “closely—some felt too closely,” writes Susan Lindee in Suffering Made Real, which documents the political pressures that shaped radiation science.  (Other good sources on the making of this science are Sue Rabbit Roff’s Hotspots, Monica Braw’s The Atomic Bomb Suppressed, and Robert Lifton and Greg Mitchell’s, Hiroshima in America).  The New York Times “joined the government in suppressing information on the radiation sickness of survivors” and consistently downplayed or omitted radioactivity from its reportage, as Beverly Ann Deepe Keever demonstrates in The New York Times and the Bomb. Keever, a veteran journalist herself, writes that “from the dawn of the atomic-bomb age,…the Times almost single-handedly shaped the news of this epoch and helped birth the acceptance of the most destructive force ever created,” aiding the “Cold War cover-up” in minimizing and denying the health and environmental consequences of the a-bomb and its testing.
The Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission scientists calculated that by 1950, when the commission began its investigations, the death rate from all causes except cancer had returned to “normal” and the cancer deaths were too few to cause alarm.
“It’s nonsense, it’s rubbish!” protested epidemiologist Dr. Alice Stewart, an early critic—and victim—of the Hiroshima studies.  Stewart discovered, in 1956, that x-raying pregnant women doubled the chance of a childhood cancer:  this put her on a collision course with ABCC/RERF data, which found no excess of cancer in children exposed in utero to the blasts.  Nobody in the 1950s wanted to hear that a fraction of the radiation dose “known” to be safe could kill a child.  During the Cold War, officials were assuring us we could survive all-out nuclear war by ducking and covering under desks and the U.S. and U.K. governments were pouring lavish subsidies into “the friendly atom.”  Stewart was defunded and defamed.  
She persisted in her criticisms of the Hiroshima data which were repeatedly invoked to discredit her findings, pointing out that there was no way the survivors could have returned to “normal” a mere five years after the atomic blasts.  This was not a normal or representative population:  it was a population of healthy survivors, since the weakest had died off.   Her studies of childhood cancer had found that children incubating cancer became 300 times more infection sensitive than normal children.  Children so immune-compromised would not have survived the harsh winters that followed the bombings, when food and water were contaminated, medical services ground to a halt, and antibiotics were scarce—but their deaths would not have been recorded as radiation-related cancer deaths.   Nor would the numerous stillbirths, spontaneous abortions, and miscarriages (known effects of radiation exposure) have been so recorded.   Stewart maintained that were many more deaths from radiation exposure than official figures indicated.
Besides, the survivors had been exposed to a single, external blast of radiation, often at very high dose (depending on their distance from the bombs), rather than the long, slow, low-dose exposure that is experienced by people living near reactors or workers in the nuclear industry.   Stewart’s studies of the Hanford nuclear workers were turning up cancer at doses “known to be too low” to produce cancer, too low as defined by the Hiroshima data: “This is the population you ought to be studying to find out the effects of low-dose radiation,” she maintained, not only because the workers have been subjected to the kind of exposure more likely to be experienced by downwinders to reactors and accidents, but also because records were kept of their exposures (the nuclear industry requires such records).
In the Hiroshima and Nagasaki studies, by contrast radiation exposure was estimated on the flimsiest of guesswork.  The radiation emitted by the bombs was calculated according to tests done in the Nevada desert and was recalculated several times in subsequent decades.  Researchers asked such questions as, where were you standing in relation to the blast, what was between you and it, what had you had for breakfast that morning, assuming that the survivors would give reliable accounts five years after the event.
“Bible arithmetic!” Stewart called the Hiroshima data:  “it has skewed subsequent calculations about the cancer effect of radiation, and not only the cancer effect, but many other effects –immune system damage, lowered resistance to disease, infection, heart disease, genetic damage.  These are serious misrepresentations because they suggest it’s safe to increase levels of background radiation.”    In fact, as the Hiroshima studies went on, they turned up numerous radiation effects besides cancer—cardiovascular and gastrointestinal damage, eye diseases, and other health problems—which bore out her prediction.    Stewart was also proved right on the issue of fetal X-rays, though it took her two decades to convince official bodies to recommend against the practice, during which time doctors went right on X-raying pregnant women.   It took her another two decades to build a case strong enough to persuade the US government, in 1999, to grant compensation to nuclear workers for cancer incurred on the job.  (It helps, in this area, to be long-lived, as she commented wryly).
Twice, she has demonstrated that radiation exposures assumed “too low” to be dangerous carry high risk—two major blows at the Hiroshima data.
Yet this 60-year old RERF data set continues to be invoked to dismiss new evidence—evidence of cancer clusters in the vicinity of nuclear reactors and findings from Chernobyl.
More than 40 studies have turned up clusters of childhood leukemia in the vicinity of nuclear facilities, reckons Ian Fairlie, an independent consultant on radioactivity in the environment and a former member of the Committee Examining Radiation Risks of Internal Emitters (an investigatory commission established by the U.K. government but disbanded in 2004).  Fairlie describes this as a “mass of evidence difficult to contradict”—yet it continues to be contradicted, on the basis of the Hiroshima studies.   Generally when a cancer cluster is detected in the neighborhood of a reactor, the matter gets referred to a government committee that dismisses the findings on the grounds that radioactive emissions from facilities are “too low” to produce a cancer effect—“too low, according to RERF risk estimates.
But in 2007, something extraordinary happened, when a government-appointed committee formed in response to the pressure of concerned citizens turned up increased rates of childhood leukemia in the vicinity of all 16 nuclear power plants in Germany.   The Kinderkrebs in der Umgebung von Kernkraftwerken study, known by its acronym KiKK, was a large, well-designed study with a case-control format (1592 cancer cases and 4735 controls).     The investigators—who were not opposed to nuclear power—anticipated they’d find “no effect... on the basis of the usual models for the effects of low levels of radiation.”  But they found, to their surprise, that children who lived less than 5 km from a plant were more than twice as likely to develop leukemia as children who lived more than 5 km away.   This was inexplicable within current models of estimating radiation risk: emissions would have had to have been orders of magnitude higher than those released by the power stations to account for the rise in leukemia.  So the investigators concluded that the rise in leukemia couldn’t have been caused by radiation.
The findings are not inexplicable, explains Fairlie, when you understand that the data on which risk is calculated, the Hiroshima studies, are “unsatisfactory.”  Fairlie’s criticism of these data echoes Stewart’s: “risk estimates from an instantaneous external blast of high energy neutrons and gamma rays are not really applicable to the chronic, slow, internal exposures from the low-range alpha and beta radiation from most environmental releases.” (my emphasis)  Fairlie points out a further problem with the Hiroshima data: its failure to take into account the dangers of internal radiation.  As Sawada Shoji, emeritus professor of physics at Nagoya University and a Hiroshima survivor, confirms, the Hiroshima studies never looked at fallout:  they looked at “gamma rays and neutrons emitted within a minute of the explosion,” but did not consider the effects of residual radiation over time, effects from inhalation or ingestion that “are more severe.”  The distinction between external and internal radiation is important to keep clear.  A bomb blast gives off radiation in the form of high-energy subatomic particles and materials that remain as fallout in the form of radioactive elements such as strontium 90 and cesium.   Most of this is likely to remain on the ground, where it will radiate the body from without, but some may be ingested or inhaled and lodge in a lung or other organ, where it will continue to emit radioactivity at close range. Nuclear proponents cite background radiation to argue that low-dose radiation is relatively harmless, asserting (as Monbiot argued against Caldicott) that we’re daily exposed to background radiation and survive. But this argument misses the fact that background radiation is from an external source and so is a more finite exposure than radioactive substances ingested or inhaled, which go on irradiating tissues, “giving very high doses to small volumes of cells,” as Helen Caldicott says.   (Caldicott explains, when physicists talk about “permissible doses,” “[t]hey consistently ignore internal emitters — radioactive elements from nuclear power plants or weapons tests that are ingested or inhaled into the body,…  They focus instead on generally less harmful external radiation from sources outside the body.” )
The KiKK study “commands attention,” Fairlie insists.  But it got no mention in mainstream media in the U.S. or the U.K.—until The Guardian, in early May of 2011, gave this spin to it:  “Plants have been cleared of causing childhood cancers,” declared the headline.  “Government’s advisory committee says it is time to look elsewhere for causes of leukaemia clusters.”   What “elsewhere,” what other causes are cited for cancer clusters in the vicinity of reactors?  Infection, a virus, a mosquito, socioeconomics, chance say the experts quoted in The Guardian.   The U.K. government is now moving ahead with plans to build eight new reactors.
When new evidence comes into conflict with old models, reinvoke the old models rather than looking at the new evidence.   The world is flat.  So is it flat in Chernobyl.
“There is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure two decades after the accident at Chernobyl,” announced the New York Times, a few days after the Fukushima reactors began to destabilize (Denise Grady, “Precautions should limit health problems from nuclear plant’s radiation,” March 15, 2011) The Times bases this claim on a 2005 World Health Organization (WHO) study that found “minimal health effects” and estimated that only 4000 deaths “will probably be attributable to the accident ultimately.”  The worst effect of the accident is a “paralyzing fatalism,” an expert tells the Times, which leads people to “drug and alcohol use, and unprotected sex and unemployment” (Elisabeth Rosenthal, “Experts find reduced effects of Chernobyl,”Sept 6, 2005).   “Radiophobia,” this is called—an attitude problem.
The Times did not mention that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is mandated with the promotion of nuclear energy, has an agreement with WHO that gives it final say over what it reports, an entangling alliance much decried by independent scientists. Nor did it mention two other studies that came out in 2006, “The Other Report on Chernobyl” and “The Chernobyl Catastrophe” by Greenpeace, both of which gave much higher casualty estimates than the widely publicized WHO/IAEA report.  Nor did it breathe a word about Chernobyl:  Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, by Alexey Yablokov et al., translated into English and published by the New York Academy of Sciences in 2009—which estimates casualties at 985,000, orders of magnitude more than the WHO/IAEA report.
Yablokov et al. draw on “data generated by many thousands of scientists, doctors, and other experts who directly observed the suffering of millions affected by radioactive fallout in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia,” and incorporate more than 5000 studies, mostly in Slavic languages (compared with the 350 mentioned in the 2005 report, most of which were in English).  The authors are impeccably credentialed:  Dr. Alexey Yablokov was environmental advisor to Yeltsin and Gorbachev; Dr. Vassily Nesterenko was former director of the Institute of Nuclear Energy in Belarus.  Nesterenko, together with Andrei Sakharov, founded the independent Belarusian Institute of Radiation Safety BELRAD, which studies –as well as treats—the Chernobyl children.  When he died in 2008 as a result of radiation exposure incurred flying over the burning reactor (which gave us the only measurement of radionuclides released by the accident), his son Dr. Alexey Nesterenko, third author of this study, took over as director and senior scientist at BELRAD.  Dr. Janette Sherman, consulting editor, is a physician and toxicologist.
Comparing contaminated areas of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia with the so-called “clean areas,” the studies document significant increases in morbidity and mortality in contaminated regions:  not only more cancer, especially thyroid cancer, but a wide array of noncancer effects — ulcers, chronic pulmonary diseases, diabetes mellitus, eye problems, severe mental retardation in children, and a higher incidence and greater severity of infectious and viral diseases.  Every system in the body is adversely affected:  cardiovascular, reproductive, neurological, hormonal, respiratory, gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal, and immune systems.  The children are not thriving:   “Prior to 1985 more than 80% of children in the Chernobyl territories of Belarus, Ukraine, and European Russia were healthy; today fewer than 20% are well.”   In animals, too, there are “significant increases in morbidity and mortality… increased occurrence of tumor and immunodeficiencies, decreased life expectancy, early aging, changes in blood and the circulatory system, malformations.”         
Parallels between Chernobyl and Hiroshima are striking: data collection was delayed, information withheld, reports of on-the-spot observers were discounted, independent scientists were denied access “The USSR authorities officially forbade doctors from connecting diseases with radiation and, like the Japanese experience, all data were classified.”    With the “liquidators,” as they’re called, the 830,000 men and women conscripted from all over the Soviet Union to put out the fire, deactivate the reactor, and clean up the sites,  “It was officially forbidden to associate the diseases they were suffering from with radiation.”  “The official secrecy that the USSR imposed on Chernobyl’s public health data the first days after the meltdown… continued for more than three years,” during which time “secrecy was the norm not only in the USSR, but in other countries as well.”
But the parallels are political, not biological, for the Hiroshima data have proven to be an “outdated” and useless model, as Stewart said, for predicting health effects from low-dose, chronic radiation exposure over time.    The Hiroshima studies find little genetic damage in the survivors, yet Yablokov et al. document that  “Wherever there was Chernobyl radioactive contamination, there was an increase in the number of children with hereditary anomalies and congenital malformations.  These included previously rare multiple structural impairments of the limbs, head, and body,” devastating birth defects, especially in the children of the liquidators.  The correlation with radioactive exposure is so pronounced as to be “no longer an assumption, but…proven,” write the authors.  As in humans, so in every species studied, “gene pools of living creatures are actively transforming, with unpredictable consequences”:  “It appears that [Chernobyl’s irradiation] has awakened genes that have been silent over a long evolutionary time.”    The damage will play out for generations —  “at least seven generations.”
Such findings have provided radiation experts a chance to reexamine their hypotheses and theories about radiation effects, observes Mikhail Malko, a researcher at the Joint Institute of Power and Nuclear Research in Belarus.  But rather than using new evidence to enlarge their understanding, experts have found ways of dismissing these studies as “unscientific”:  they are said to be observational rather than properly controlled, “Eastern European” and not up to Western scientific protocols, and inconsistent with the hallowed Hiroshima data.
Radiation scientists denied that the thyroid cancer that increased exponentially after the accident could be a consequence of radiation:  it manifested in only three years, whereas it had taken ten years to appear in Hiroshima, and it took a more aggressive form.  They explained the increase in terms of improved screening, iodine substances used to treat the children, or pesticides—even though epidemiological studies kept turning up a link with radiation contamination.  Finally in 2005, a case-control study headed by Elisabeth Cardis confirmed a dose-response relationship between radiation and thyroid cancer in children in terms that had to be acknowledged.
Chernobyl does not usually provide the kind of neat laboratory conditions that allow such precise dose-response calculations. But neither did Hiroshima, where radiation exposure was guesstimated years after the fact and recalculated several times according to new findings.  Yet scientists have accepted the Hiroshima uncertainties –all too readily— and have allowed this data to shape policy affecting all life on this planet, while citing the less-than-ideal conditions for studying Chernobyl as an excuse to ignore or discredit these findings, dismissing them according to a model more questionable than the data they’re discounting.  The Chernobyl effects demonstrate that “Even the smallest excess of radiation over that of natural background will statistically…affect the health of exposed individuals or their descendants, sooner or later.”  But as with Stewart’s findings about fetal x-rays and nuclear workers, as with the studies that turn up cancer clusters around reactors, so with Chernobyl — it can’t be radiation that’s producing these effects because the Hiroshima studies say it can’t.  As independent scientist Rudi Nussbaum points out, the “dissonance between evidence and existing assumptions about… radiation risk,” the gap between new information and the “widely adopted presuppositions about radiation health effects,” has become insupportable.
Chernobyl is a better predictor of the Fukushima consequences than Hiroshima, but we wouldn’t know that from mainstream media.   Perhaps we would rather not know that 57% of Chernobyl contamination went outside the former USSR; that people as far away as Oregon were warned not to drink rainwater “for some time”; that thyroid cancer doubled in Connecticut in the six years following the accident; that 369 farms in Great Britain remained contaminated 23 years after the catastrophe;  that the German government compensates hunters for wild boar meat too contaminated to be eaten – and it paid four times more in compensation in 2009 than in 2007.  Perhaps we’d rather not consider the possibility that “the Chernobyl cancer toll is one of the soundest reasons for the ‘cancer epidemic’ that has been afflicting humankind since the end of the 20th century.”
“This information must be made available to the world,” write Yablokov et al.   But their book has met “mostly with silence,” as he said in a press conference in Washington DC, March 15, 2011. The silence of mainstream media has stonewalled information about Chernobyl’s health effects as effectively as the Soviets’ blackout concealed the accident itself, and as the Allies’ censorship hid the health effects of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
“We need to quash any stories trying to compare this [Fukushima] to Chernobyl,” “otherwise it could have adverse consequences on the market.”   “’This has the potential to set the nuclear industry back globally…We really need to show the safety of nuclear,” that “it’s not as bad as it looks.”  These statements were made in a few of the more than 80 emails which the Guardian got access to, which were not intended for the public eye.  “British government officials approached nuclear companies to draw up a co-ordinated public relations strategy to play down the Fukushima nuclear accident just two days after the earthquake and tsunami,” reports the Guardian, “to try to ensure the accident did not derail their plans for a new generation of nuclear stations in the UK.”
Comparisons with Chernobyl have been conspicuously absent from mainstream media, even when Fukushima was upgraded, in early June, to a level on a par with Chernobyl, level 7, the highest.  Even when Arnold Gundersen, a nuclear engineer turned whistleblower who has been monitoring Fukushima from the start, asserted that this accident may actually be more dire than Chernobyl.  Gundersen, an informed, level-headed commentator who inspires confidence, points out that there are four damaged reactors leaking into the atmosphere, ocean, and ground in an area more populated than the Ukraine: “You probably have the equivalent of 20 nuclear reactor cores…that is 20 times the potential to be released than Chernobyl.” (Fairewinds, June 16, 2011).    But apart from the damage control piece it published March 15 (cited above) and Helen Caldicott’s passing reference to “research by scientists in Eastern Europe” (op-ed, “After Fukushima:  Enough is enough,” December 2)—the Times has barely mentioned Chernobyl (and even Caldicott did not mention the Yablokov study by name).   What Chernobyl has wrought, which has been documented so clearly by Yablokov et al., is simply too dangerous to give press to, undercutting as it does the nuclear industry’s claims to safety and viability.
The New York Times has done good reporting on Japanese blunders and corruption.  It has described the way plant operators and government officials minimized the severity of the meltdown, the corporate and government cover-ups and irresponsibility (Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler, “Japan held nuclear data, leaving evacuees in peril,” August 8, 2011).  It has pointed out complicity between industry and regulators (Norimitsu Onishi and Ken Belson, “Culture of Complicity Tied to Stricken Nuclear Plant,” April 27, 2011).  It has done pieces on citizens’ opposition  (Onishi and Fackler, “Japan ignored or long hid nuclear risks,” May 17, 2011; Ken Belson, “Two voices are heard after years of futility”, August 19, 2011) and on grass-roots initiatives to gather data where bureaucrats failed (Hiroko Tabuchi, “Citizens’ testing finds 20 radioactive hot spots around Tokyo,” Aug 1, 2011).  Tabuchi even takes a swipe at the “tameness of Japanese mainstream media,” which is commendable, though her statement is a model of “tameness” compared to Nicola Liscutin’s denunciation of Japanese mass media as “little more than the mouthpiece of the government and TEPCO.”   Human interest stories abound in the Times, as in other major media, stories of workers sent in to quiet the reactors, of people living in the vicinity of the reactors.   In one such piece, “Life in limbo for Japanese near damage nuclear plant,” May 2, 2011, Fackler and Matthew Wald refer to “a lack of hard data about the health effects of lower radiation doses delivered over extended periods” – a “lack” that’s assured, as we’ve seen, by the stonewalling of evidence endemic in the media.
As laudable as some of the Times coverage has been, what it targets is the ineptitude and corruption of the Japanese, what happened over there as opposed to what goes on here, where our own dirty linen remains unwashed, as it were, and out of sight.  How much easier to criticize the lax regulatory mechanisms and lack of transparency of the Japanese than to shine a light on ourselves, on the insidious but largely invisible working of the nuclear lobby and lobbyists in this country, on the complicity of our own government and media with the nuclear industry.
 A fascinating expose by Norimitsu Onishi, “Safety myth left Japan ripe for nuclear crisis” (June 25, 2011), invites comment along these lines.  Onishi investigates the “elaborate advertising campaigns” led by Tepco and the Ministry of Economy to convince the public of the safety of nuclear power.  Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to rally support: “Over several decades, Japan’s nuclear establishment has devoted vast resources to persuade the Japanese public of the safety and necessity of nuclear power.  Plant operators built lavish, fantasy-filled public relations buildings that became tourist attractions.”  In one of these, “Alice discovers the wonders of nuclear power.  The Caterpillar reassures Alice about radiation and the Cheshire Cat helps her learn about the energy source”. 
Lest we feel smug, recall the promotion of “the friendly atom” by Walt Disney’s book and film, Our Friend the Atom, read and viewed by millions of schoolchildren (when they weren’t doing “duck and cover” drills).
What Onishi describes as happening in Japan happened in the U.S. as well— perhaps Onishi means to evoke such resonances— where a powerful propaganda campaign was launched, with hundreds of millions of dollars behind it, to promote “Atoms for Peace,” the new energy source “too cheap to meter” (though there was nothing “cheap” about it: it required enormous government subsidies, and still does).    This propaganda machine is described in the 1982 study Nukespeak: The Selling of Nuclear Technology in America: “Beginning in the mid-1950s, the AEC conducted a huge public relations operation to promote the vision of Atoms for Peace,” using “a wide range of PR techniques, including films, brochures, TV, radio, nuclear science fairs, public speakers, traveling exhibits, and classroom demonstrations” (traveling AEC exhibits with names like “Power Unlimited,” “Fallout in Perspective,” and “The Useful Atom”).
“Millions of kits of atomic energy information literature were distributed to elementary, high school, and college students.”   The public relations departments of reactor manufacturers such as Westinghouse and General Electric were also mobilized to prepare communities for nuclear facilities coming soon to their neighborhoods and to prime the general population to welcome the new technology.  The connection with mainstream media could hardly be more direct, since “Westinghouse owned CBS for many years, and General Electric, NBC,” as Karl Grossman points out.   This same PR apparatus has been busy, in recent decades, conjuring the “nuclear renaissance” from the ashes of Chernobyl, selling nuclear power as “clean, green, and safe.”
The Times coverage of Fukushima has raised hopes in some quarters that this current disaster may have opened a space for public debate in mainstream media about nuclear power.  But how real is this debate, when so many fundamental issues remain hidden?  How open a discussion can this be, when Chernobyl and the German reactor study go unmentioned, when we have to turn to alternative media to learn that the Yablokov study even exists—or to learn that, as Alexander Cockburn reports, Obama was the recipient of generous campaign contributions from the nuclear industry (which may cast some light on his enthusiastic support of nuclear power)?  How open a discussion is this, when the ABCC/RERF radiation risk assessments that enable the industry to exist remain unaddressed?   A serious consideration of the Yablokov study and the German reactor study would reveal them to be “skewed” and useless, as we’ve seen;  but   rather than go this route, the Times calls on RERF experts to do damage control for the industry.    So RERF reassurances about radiation risk remain unchallenged and in place as the invisible buttressing of the nuclear industry, as the basis of radiation safety standards throughout the world.
Contrast the response of U.S. media to the response of the German press:   “Fukushima marks the end of the nuclear era”  (Spiegel, March 14, 2011);  “Germany can no longer pretend nuclear power is safe…. it is over. Done. Finished.” (March 14, 2011)    To Spiegel, Fukushima is a warning that cries out for an end to nuclear power; to the Times, Fukushima is a warning that we should build our reactors more efficiently and regulate them more carefully, rather than cease building them at all  (Editorial, “In the wake of Fukushima,” July 23, 2011).  In the months after Fukushima, “Spiegel’s most popular online feature as the drama unfolded was an evolving digital map of the ‘radiation plume,’” observes Ralph Martin;  “the German electorate made nuclear power their top concern—they made Fukushima theirs,” whereas “the reaction of American media…[was to] regard the events as yet another story, without any larger social ramifications,” without much relevance to ourselves.   And so nuclear power marches on:  “Alabama nuclear reactor, partly built, to be finished,” Matthew Wald, August 19, 2011;  “Two utilities win approval for nuclear power plants,” Matthew Wald, December 23, 2011 (neither of these is a particularly long or noticeable article, and neither is front page).
There has been precious little mention in U.S. mainstream media of the plume Spiegel was tracing, except to whisk it away as presenting “no health hazard” (Broad, cited above), though the worldwide fallout from Fukushima has occasioned much discussion on the Web.  Gundersen cites evidence that the early releases, which were revealed to be more than double what we were initially informed, contained “hot particles” of cesium, strontium, uranium, plutonium, cobalt 60 that have turned up in automobile engine filters, and according to what’s been detected in air filters, a person in Tokyo was breathing about ten hot particles a day through the month of April.  A person in Seattle was breathing about five, that same month.
Not to worry: “The effects of radiation do not come to people that are happy and laughing.  They come to people that are weak-spirited, that brood and fret.”   So says Dr. Yamashita Shunichi, who has been assigned to head the official study of radiation health effects in the Fukushima population. Yamashita was sent by the Japanese government from Nagasaki University, where he was part of the RERF studies, revered for their long experience with the A-Bomb survivors.  Mandated with addressing the concerns of the citizens and correcting their misconceptions, Yamashita rallies the population with stirring words:  “The name Fukushima will be widely known throughout the world…This is great!  Fukushima has beaten Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  From now on, Fukushima will become the world number 1 name. A crisis is an opportunity.  This is the biggest opportunity.  Hey, Fukushima, you’ve become famous without any efforts.”
We’re in good hands.